WASHINGTON Influential U.S. Senator John Kerry returned abruptly to Afghanistan on Thursday to see President Hamid Karzai, seeking to press him over a four-month deadline for private security contractors to be disbanded.
In Washington, Kerry's office confirmed that instead of returning to Washington, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had flown back to Kabul from neighboring Pakistan, where he surveyed damage from epic floods.
"Senator Kerry has returned to Kabul as part of his ongoing effort to assess conditions on the ground and will complete his meetings with President Karzai and U.S. officials and visit with U.S. soldiers," spokesman Fred Jones told Reuters.
Jones declined to provide a specific reason for Kerry to hold a second round of meetings with Karzai, except to say more details would be available on Friday after the talks.
Other sources said Kerry was expected to press Karzai to be flexible on the four-month deadline for security contractors to leave, a timeline the Pentagon called "very aggressive" and challenging.
Karzai issued the security contractors' decree just hours after seeing Kerry on Tuesday when the senator also urged him to work harder to fight corruption and improve governance.
Kerry said before the order was issued that it was in Afghanistan's interests not to have a "whole bunch" of private security firms there but added a reasonable timeframe was "up for grabs."
Last October, Kerry jetted into Kabul with the blessing of the Obama administration to convince Karzai to accept a runoff election after the first round was plagued with fraud. The Afghan leader acceded to the senator's pressure and it was seen as a diplomatic success for Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president in 2004.
A senior U.S. official said the idea of disbanding the security firms was obviously "not a new one" but that the timeline had been a surprise to Washington.
"We have a shared goal with the Afghan government to come up with an environment to reduce the need for these companies but we need to do this in a deliberate way," said the official, who declined to be identified.
He said the Obama administration was in talks with Karzai over the decree, adding he was unaware of Kerry's return or whether it was at the request of the administration.
Karzai, whose government faces September 18 parliamentary elections, has been trying to assert his independence from his Western backers. He stepped up criticism of the security firms last week, saying they were too costly and "daily creating miseries."
The decree said the private security firms were being banned to avoid misuse of weapons that had caused "horrific and tragic incidents."
Such firms employ up to 40,000 people working mainly for Western enterprises in Afghanistan as well as the U.S. military, guarding checkpoints and other roles. There are 52 licensed private security firms operating in Afghanistan as well as others that are not registered.
NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said on Thursday that Karzai's decree was a sovereign decision taken by the Afghan government to bring order to an industry which, "for good reasons, they feel needs stronger regulation."
"The timeline's set and obviously the government will be working through all of the practical implications. We and others will be in touch with them," Sedwill told reporters in Kabul.
(Additional reporting by Paul Tait in Kabul; Editing by Peter Cooney)